Schools Take Mess When Parents Quit

COMMENT

September 11, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Every teacher I know has heard these words from a parent: "I just can't do a thing with him."

And in that plaintive, hopeless moment, they've said volumes not only about their errant offspring but about their ability as a parent as well.

Any parent can relate to this lament. I don't know of a kid who didn't exist somewhere on a continuum of behavior that annoyed or infuriated his parents at some point. All of us as parents have felt that moment of complete and utter defeat. "They wear us down, and wear us down and, finally . . . we can't do a thing with them."

But most of us don't abdicate our responsibility. We redouble our efforts, or relax our standards in increments as our children earn new privileges. But we never call it a day.

Sadly, some parents do.

I spoke to such a parent recently. She is the mother of a Howard High School teen-ager, recently charged along with a group of his friends with attacking three freshman students on a path in Columbia.

I wrote about that attack in a column last month and the courage shown by one victim's family in coming forward to publicize the matter. One of the youths attacked had his jaw broken by someone wielding what was apparently a BB gun.

Nine people were charged in the Aug. 6 incident. Seven were juveniles, five of them from Howard High. Two of the suspects were charged as adults with assault and battery: Tyrone Thompson, 18, whose last known address is in Baltimore City, and Sean Coleman, 18, a Howard High graduate from Phelps Luck.

As a result of charges being filed, the son of the woman I spoke with and four of his classmates have been barred from school for 30 days. They will be tutored at home, in what school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey calls a "cooling-off period."

But the woman I interviewed and her husband chose to take their case to the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and to a community newspaper, claiming the superintendent acted unfairly because their son has not been found guilty of the assault. According to the woman, her son was "in the vicinity" of the beating, but did not participate. (The family's name is not being used because their son was charged as a juvenile.)

Yes, he knew the perpetrators of the assault. No, he did nothing to stop the attack. She knows all this, she says, because her son told her. This is the same young man who she admits "hangs out with the wrong crowd." Finally, she laments, she "can't do a thing with him."

But she doesn't feel he has done anything wrong. In fact, in addition to asking me whether I could represent her son in court, she wondered aloud who she could sue for the problems inflicted on her son. Lacking a legal degree or the proclivities of a defense lawyer, I declined to accept the case. I can't fathom whom they might sue.

It also seems to me the superintendent operated well within regulations by keeping the students out of school for a month.

School rules give Mr. Hickey the authority to assign students to alternative educational placement when they've been charged with an offense involving violence or the use of a weapon. The superintendent has this discretion even when the incident occurs off school property or when school is not in session.

Given all the horror stories of violence in public schools, this seems to me a highly justified, preventative measure and I applaud the superintendent for acting decisively.

The students were granted a hearing before they were reassigned. Although the woman and her husband were on vacation at the time, they were granted their own hearing date when they returned. Even Maryland ACLU Director Stuart Comstock-Gay admits that due process was afforded the family.

Mr. Comstock-Gay did say, however, that he is concerned that the school system is taking action against students before they are convicted. But, as Dr. Hickey points out, his action was not disciplinary, but taken to avoid potential conflict when students returned to school two weeks ago.

At any rate, Mr. Comstock-Gay said it is unlikely that the ACLU will use already strapped resources to take up the student's case. That leaves the family looking for representation and some sympathy for the son they say they can't control.

My sense of it, however, is that people's sympathies are just about used up for parents who say of their offspring: I can't do a thing with him.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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